Janet Mills – Hero or Hopeless?

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

According to a BDN poll published a few weeks ago, Attorney General Janet Mills is currently enjoying a broad lead in the Democratic Primary for Governor.

To be clear, nothing’s set in stone. Voters change their minds all the time, and no poll is perfectly accurate. Plus there’s now Ranked Choice Voting, so even if Mills gets the most first choice votes, she could still lose.

That said, her odds of becoming our state’s next Democratic nominee are certainly looking good.

This shouldn’t surprise anybody.

Based on the last few years of voting records, my estimate is that around 58% of people voting in this year’s Democratic primary will be female, the vast majority of them over fifty. Like Mills herself, these are women who were born before Title IX, before Gloria Steinem, to a world completely dominated by men. These are women who know well that, even after decades of people like Janet Mills making inroads, authority in Maine is still largely dominated by men. Mills is a hero to many of these women, for good reason.

In 1980, Mills broke the glass ceiling, becoming the first female District Attorney in Maine history, and one of the first in the country. Mills was first elected Attorney General in 2008, and she’s used that job to do more to fight LePage than probably anybody else in Maine. She’s defended immigrants against Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” She successfully sued Standard and Poor’s, the Wall Street financial giant whose inflated ratings of toxic assets helped cause the 2009 recession. She went after the massive pharmaceutical corporations behind Maine’s opiate epidemic and won a large settlement that she put toward supplying law enforcement officers across the state with the life saving drug Narcan.

All great stuff. So what’s the problem?

Well, there’s two. The first is that, a lot of the time, Mills seems to approach the world like the prosecutor she once was, and, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Combating drugs? It’s undeniably courageous to go after the pharmaceutical companies. But should we be just as vehement about going after injured people who’ve become hooked on painkillers? Should we really be charging anybody caught possessing even a small amount of opiates with a full on felony? Should we really be sending sick people to prison? While she seems to have changed her tune of late after a barrage of public pressure, Mills has called repeatedly for us to do exactly that. Personally, I think incarcerating sick people is both cruel and unlikely to solve their problem. Folks in that situation need treatment and community recovery programs; you can’t sentence somebody to a better life.

Ultimately, as progressive as Mills is in some areas, at the end of the day, she’s more than a little bit of an authoritarian. Asked if she would accept the findings of this year’s RCV process, or if she would consider challenging the announced results of the upcoming primary in court, Mills refused to rule out the idea of a challenge. With that sort of attitude, it’s easy to see why Mills has opposed Maine’s Native Americans on several key issues around sovereignty over the years. When you feel entitled to be the judge, jury and executioner of Maine, tribal autonomy probably doesn’t always fit perfectly into your world view.

Mills just doesn’t have what I’m looking for in a leader. I’d much rather the person in the Blaine House be somebody who’s genuinely familiar with and respectful of the struggles lower income Mainers face every day. I want somebody who’s prepared not just to govern us from above, but to work with Maine communities across the state to help us develop our own solutions to our own problems. I’m okay with having a Governor, but I’m not crazy about the idea of my community being “governed” by somebody so punitive and out of touch as Mills.

My other big concern about Mills is that, if history is anything to go on, I’m not sure she can win a general election.

In 2010, the last time Maine Democrats had a competitive primary in a gubernatorial race, Libby Mitchell won in June with 34% of the vote. Mitchell, like Mills, had been part of Maine’s Democratic Party forever, rising through the ranks and attaining a leadership role as President of the Maine Senate. Mitchell had even run unsuccessfully for Congress, same as Mills.

Yet, while her plurality was enough to win the primary, Mitchell went on to pick up remarkably few supporters outside of the Democratic Party, and when November rolled around, she ended up coming in with less than 19% of the votes in the general election. Maine Democrats blamed Eliot Cutler, who got almost twice as many votes as Mitchell, and raised their fists in the air at their new governor, Paul LePage.

While it remains to be seen how this year’s big independent challenger Alan Caron will compare in terms of popularity to Eliot Cutler, personally, I really like the guy. Caron is humble, smart, ambitious and unusually good at connecting with people across the political spectrum.

Shawn Moody, the likely Republican challenger, is no pushover either. A classic “bootstraps” story, Moody borrowed a few thousands dollars as a senior at Gorham High to start fixing the cars of his friends and family members. Fast forward a few decades, and he’s now running one of the largest chains of auto body shops in this part of the country. For conservative voters who are head over heels for self-made business men, Moody is practically a poster boy.

Is Mills a stronger candidate than Mitchell? It’s hard to say. Mills is more accomplished and better positioned to raise money than Mitchell, who ran clean, ever was. But is Mills twice as strong as Mitchell? Can she win over twice as many voters as Mitchell did?

Even for someone as bold as Janet Mills, I think that’s a tall order.

Disclosure: I’m close friends with State Senator Mark Dion, who is also currently running for Governor, and have been helping with his campaign. Mark also paid me a few thousand dollars over the winter to coordinate the signature drive to get him on the ballot.

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.